Council also initiates question and answer session at its October 3 meeting
BAR HARBOR—During its September 20 meeting, a split Bar Harbor Town Council voted in favor of signing a memorandum of agreement that details the town’s new cruise ship plan.
The council voted in the same 5-2 split as it had at an August 16 meeting with Councilors Val Peacock, Matthew Hochman, Erin Cough, Jeff Dobbs, and Jill Goldthwait voting in favor and Joe Minutolo and Gary Friedmann voting against. That vote was also mirrored at that same August 16 meeting when it came to instructing the town manager to draft a memorandum of agreement between the town and the cruise ship industry and bringing it back to the council for discussion and possible approval, as well as allowing the harbormaster to continue to book cruise ships for the upcoming season.
The plan would ban cruise ship visits in April and November as well as have a cap of 3,800 in September and October. The current daily cap is 5,500 for those months. The new plan would allow no more than three cruise ships each day. During July and August the monthly limit would be 40,000. That limit would be 65,000 in September and October. The limit in May and June would be 30,000.
The plan is backed by the cruise industry. Many Bar Harbor residents complained of overcrowding in the downtown area because of cruise ships. However, many business owners worried that the cruise ship plan is too big a cut. There is also a citizen’s petition that would restrict disembarkations to 1,000 per day rather than focusing on cruise ship visits per month or day. That petition will be approved or rejected in November by Bar Harbor voters.
Town Manager Kevin Sutherland has said that in the town’s plan, cruise ship fees are collected based on the lower berth capacity, which is the “beds on boat” or guest capacity. This is regardless of the actual number of passengers who leave the vessel, and is the least staff-intensive model, Sutherland said of the management plan, and added that there was a greater level of control with the monthly caps as opposed to the citizens’ petition which focuses on daily disembarkations.
This summer, the council has heard public comment about the citizens’ petition regarding cruise ships, and Sutherland solicited 44 pages of comments and emails about the town’s then-potential cruise ship plan, which was presented to the council at the August 16 meeting. A survey of citizens’ feelings about cruise ships also occurred prior to the current plan.
At the September 20 meeting where the plan was approved, Minutolo said he’d like for there to be a public hearing on this plan as well. Minutolo said he didn’t consider the comments taken earlier to be an open public meeting.
Town Clerk Liz Graves said that memorandum of agreements do not usually involve public hearings and aren’t required to.
“We have heard from people about this from the general idea,” Cough said. She said she saw Minutolo’s point, but that this isn’t a land use ordinance, but a memo that required negotiations. “This isn’t a resolution. This is a negotiated document,” she said, but she understood that this is the first time that council has had a document with definitions before them. “As long as there isn’t the expectation that we are actually changing numbers,” she is open to having a public hearing, she said.
“We’ve heard from the public. We’ve had lots of people in the room talking about it. I think we kind of know how people feel about it,” Hochman said. “I don’t know what we’re going to gain by having another round of people coming up to the microphone.”
Hochman also stressed that he values public opinion, but wondered what was hoped to be accomplished from a public hearing when the council had already voted in a majority to accept the plan at the August meeting. He stressed that he wanted to move forward and “actually make some changes” to the number of cruise ships in Bar Harbor. He said that though he was interested in what people had to say, he feared that the council would be back at square one in its attempts to address citizens’ concerns over cruise ship congestion and visitation.
Dobbs said he felt the same as Hochman. “We voted to follow this path. We voted in a majority to go forward last time.” It isn’t perfect, he said, but it’s what the council majority agreed to do.
Peacock said that there was a little bit of trickiness in opening a public hearing since the council voted already on the cruise ship caps. If any numbers were changed, then everything would have to be renegotiated again with the cruise lines.
At other meetings, both Friedmann and Minutolo stressed that they didn’t think the plan made enough reductions. Other councilors viewed the plan as a compromise and a good first step. Sutherland and others have mentioned that the plan, which is legally binding, allows for yearly review and that caps can change depending on what the town sees occurring once the plan is enacted.
Peacock said that there’s an issue doing it as a public hearing format where there’s no back and forth and the council only listens, versus having a conversation with back and forth and questions from both sides. There is no dialogue in a public hearing format in front of the town council. The council is meant to listen and not engage.
The majority of the group ruled in favor of having a question and answer period at the council’s Oct 3 meeting. That meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Dobbs voted against.
Since the town’s cruise ship plan is reviewed annually, after a public forum and hearing from the public and having a question and answer period, the information gleaned could be used next year for the next round of negotiations, Hochman said, adding, “I love the idea of a public discussion.”
Later in the meeting and during councilors’ individual comments Cough said that the cruise ship plan is a better structure than they’ve had before and that while there may not have been a public hearing about the plan there had been a lot of public comment.
“I fully support the idea that we will have a legally binding document,” she said. She said that she was proud as a town councilor to put a document forward that is a compromise and is also comprehensive. She said the citizens’ petition won’t accomplish the goals of limiting the number of cruise ships as it only limits the numbers of people disembarking. An unintended result of that she said, would be that it could cause tenders to race to get passengers off the ships before the 1,000 person limit is reached each day.
“I think our harbor would be bedlam,” she said.
There would still be a harbor full of large cruise ships and that wouldn’t lessen any potential environmental impact.
She said she was encouraged by the increased amount of town participation. “There’s a lot more reasonable behavior that’s coming,” she said. “It’s a much more friendly discussion.”
“Bar Harbor needs to be strong, intelligent and be able to adapt,” she said.
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LINKS TO LEARN MORE
Packet notes for the last meeting – The cruise ship plan MUA is within.
To read the comments sent to the town manager (and the rest of the council packet), click here. Public comment specifically about the cruise ships are from 47-94.
A story about the town’s Cruise Ship Committee Meeting is here.
For an earlier article with more information about the citizens’ initiative to decrease cruise ship disembarkations.
Agendas for past meetings are here.
Cruise ship information is here.